The Wittenberg football team staged the largest comeback in its illustrious NCAA Division III playoff history, rallying from a 31-13 halftime to stun No. 11 Heidelberg 52-38 in the first round Saturday.
Much like other memorable rallies, including a 1988 win at Dayton, a 2001 win at Hardin-Simmons and a 2002 victory at Hanover, the Tigers did the job on the road. No. 13 Wittenberg (10-1) advanced to a second-round game against No. 7 Hobart, and the Tigers also removed a monkey from the program’s collective back with its first postseason win over an Ohio Athletic Conference foe in eight tries, dating to 1978.
“We’ve had some great comeback wins in the playoffs, and this one will definitely rank right up there with the best of them,” said Wittenberg coach Joe Fincham. “We kept telling our guys that this was going to be a 15-round fight and they had to keep their composure. We just felt that if we could keep running plays, we would find our stride.”
Heidelberg, making its first playoff appearance, seized a 21-3 lead less than 12 minutes into the game and held a 31-13 advantage after a field goal on the final play of the first half. However, Wittenberg gained some momentum on the final series after Evan Killilea made the Tigers’ first tackle for a loss on third down.
To that point, Wittenberg’s defense had given up big play after big play. No one knew at the time, but the pendulum had swung, setting the stage for a second half dominated by the Tigers.
“They pushed us around early in the ball game,” Fincham said. “It’s a credit to (defensive coordinator) Andy Waddle and the coaches on that side of the ball. They kept encouraging the guys and kept making adjustments, and we got a lot of key stops. The next thing you know, Jed’s a millionaire, right?”
Wittenberg had some success offensively over the opening 30 minutes as well, starting with a pair of field goals by Sean Williams. Trailing 28-6 late in the second quarter, Fincham elected not to kick another field goal and his team responded, converting on fourth down en route to the first of quarterback Reed Florence’s five touchdown passes.
The Tiger offense exploded in the second half, scoring 32 unanswered points. After a Williams field goal, Florence tossed two touchdown passes to Brendon Cunningham, who had three in the game to go along with a two-point conversion, and one each to Jonathan Stoner and Desi Kirkman. Forence and Kirkman also connected on a third-and-33 to keep a scoring drive alive on the first play of the fourth quarter with the Tigers trailing 31-23.
Wittenberg’s defense held Heidelberg to 138 yards and one touchdown in the second half and forced four turnovers. Heidelberg was driving for the tying score when safety Heath Eby sealed the win in the final minute with an interception he returned for a touchdown.
Florence finished with 346 yards passing and 66 yards rushing. Kirkman led the receivers with 10 catches for 104 yards, while Cunningham added eight receptions for 94 yards.